Looking back: what I learned shooting film for a year at 52 Rolls 2016 – Henry Joy McCracken
We’re very pleased to be able to simultaneously feature a review of Henry Joy McCracken’s 2016 52 Rolls project here on EMULSIVE. You can also find the article on the 52 Rolls website right here.
My own personal goal was to shoot at least one roll of film each week using only a 50mm lens on a Leica rangefinder equipped with black and white film. Before I started, I was aware of the wondrous properties of the 50mm lens but felt I needed a little structure to prevent me straying into other more “exciting” focal lengths. At the end of 2016 and 135 (yes really) rolls of film later, I have largely made it, and along the way I learned a few interesting things about film and film photography, as well as interacting with a lot of friendly film shooters on 52 rolls.
Some background: I am an astronomer, and I have spent a lot of time analysing images from electronic detectors. These instruments have revolutionised astronomy and immensely expanded our knowledge of the Universe. However, they are just that, instruments, and we need always to choose the best tools for the task at hand.
When I started photography again in 2014, it seemed natural to turn to digital imaging: it is the most efficient way to record photons. You see, our aim as astronomers in taking images is to capture a perfect representation of the world. But is that what we should wish for as as artists? Everyone reading this would agree how the flat, cold perfection of digital images seems to miss something. So, in summer 2015, after a lot of fruitless editing of digital images trying to make them ‘alive’, I decided to try film.
But first some philosophy…
Here comes the philosophical digression. On many levels, digital imagery really only has a tenuous link to traditional analogue photography. Consider first the content of digital images: I’ve heard it said that we are in fact at the same stage as at the dawn of photography, a century ago. Back then, everyone was trying to make photographs look like paintings.
In intent, today’s digital image resembles an analogue photograph: they are fixed instants frozen in time. But it is only a convention that digital “photographs” represent this single instant (interestingly the latest iPhones can take pictures which have a few seconds of embedded video before and after the chosen moment).
Digital photography is defined by software, and who knows if it will continue in the same form that it has today. The most popular camera in the world, the iPhone, is certainly not the best camera, but it probably has the best software.
So why this attraction to film?
Well, film photographs are not necessarily realistic (and the lo-fi film movement is a good example of this). Black-and-white photography of course never had any pretence to being real, but even so everyone knows that there is no grain in the sky. It seems that in a strange reversal of fortune, these days analogue photography is actually closer to painting than ever before.
Photography today seems to be a conscious choice to make an image of the world which does not resemble it. But let’s dig deeper: there is another reason, which seems much clearer to me now after developing all those rolls of film. The fundamental attraction of film is simply that the negative, in fact, is a physical object. The photograph was made by light falling on the object being photographed. Digital images, on the other hand, are just “simulacra”. Even though they are hyper-realistic, they are not guaranteed to represent reality because they exist apart from any material support. They are defined by software and are thus inherently unreliable, and I believe we sense this when we see a digital image.
Today, the most popular camera on Amazon is Fuji’s “instax” instant camera. You see, people still feel an instinctive connection to the thing that was photographed through the instant picture. Yes, the content of the image is the important thing, not whether it is created by silver halides or electrons.
Yes, of course it is possible to take bad photographs on film. It just seems there is an “aura” (to borrow Walter Benjamin’s term) created by the analogue process which is impossible to replicate electronically.
In the darkroom
Asking around at work, I discovered there was still a darkroom at the Observatory, as I documented on 52 rolls. In the last year, after throwing out a lot of expired chemicals from extinct companies and cleaning up, I got it working again. Today I try to go there at least once a month to make prints: for me this is the defining aspect of film photography.
Like the Instax camera, the wonderful thing about prints are that …you can give them to people. There is this too: each negative I have on my shelf has been with me at the same moment in space and time as I took the photograph. If I am ever tempted to take a digital image or two, I remind myself how difficult it would be to make images from electronic files that have the same weight and presence as a silver print.
Somewhere in there, in the last few months of 2016, I bought a big magnetic board for my office at home and have since filled it with prints of my photographs. I look at them every day. There is something special about seeing and holding a print and knowing that no computer intervened at any point in the creation of the image.
For me, the effort involved in trying to select a “good” photograph each week during the 52 rolls project was a big deal, especially for the weeks in which there are no good photographs at all! I think I developed just a little artistically thanks to this.
The film rangefinder is a unique way to view the world, especially when a 50mm lens is mounted on a Leica with the “wrong” viewfinder magnification so you get the “picture-in-picture” effect, showing you where potential photographs could be and what lies around them.
A Leica is just about the ideal instrument to find those potential photographs in an urban environment. I burned up a lot of shoe leather around Paris looking for interesting things to put inside that box. And I was lucky quite a few times.
Where to put the box?
So, what is interesting? It seems to me that a lot of street photography is too serious. I don’t think we should be too serious. I love Cartier-Bresson like the next fellow, but there are just not enough gags in there. I am looking for the gags. Like the guy I saw selling sketches, looking like his sketches, during the floods in Paris as the Seine inexorably rises to (potentially) overflow its banks, or the man having a drink with his dog (or the dog having a drink with his man) or the two hairy guys in the art gallery, or the security guards at the Musee Rodin who look like extras from a Tarantino movie, or even the man with sunglasses taking a phone call on a real phone outside near the book stalls on the banks of the Seine.
Here in Paris, of course I am conscious of the heavy weight of photographic history. I have been to the galleries. Walking around with a film Leica probably doesn’t help, but I think there are still a few things to do. I’m interested in the history of lost objects and have been attentively scanning the streets for such things, but alas Paris today is much too clean.
I am particularly attached to the pair of gloves I saw in Montparnasse train station, probably left behind by a man working on the machines, or the pair of boots I saw perfectly aligned on the pavement, or even the small teddy bear carefully propped up on the lintel of a building. As part of my job I travel a lot, and travelling with only a film camera and a black-and-white film is strangely liberating. There is immediately a new set of photographs to take that no-one has been taking for a long while.
I enjoy the challenge of taking pictures of people, something I only really started when I switched to film. It seems to me the problem of taking a good picture of a friend is a bit like writing an autobiography: you are telling a story to which you have an emotional attachment, and you have to be sure that that story is interesting to someone who has no such connection to your story. Is that picture still good, even if you don’t know personally the subject?
For me this is a very interesting problem, how to take good pictures of people. I admit that my “reference text” in this subject is a book I found in second-hand store in Paris, Cartier-Bresson’s “Photoportraits”. It is now sadly out of print. It is a collection of portraits that he took throughout his career, and in fact we see a few people twice, at the interval of a few decades. In each photograph he manages to capture some essence of the person, usually in an unguarded moment. I had read that he visited for an hour or two to take these pictures (often sent on assignment by a newspaper).
Looking at the pictures I always think how could he have possibly taken them if he was alone with subjects? The people are not looking at him; I guess it is that old photographer trick of becoming invisible. For me, the book is also a reference in terms of printing technique, as each photography is perfectly reproduced by the master printers at Picto in Paris. When I am in the darkroom wondering if my blacks and greys are right, I think back to that book.
What next? It seems important to maintain that connection to the negative, to the strip of developed film. In fact, film photography has become more time-consuming today because many of us convert film into bits. In French the very apt word for such a process is “dematerialisation”.
I say this word to myself and imagine developed strips of Tri-X disappearing in a shimmering cloud of light like in “Star Trek”. This process breaks the link to the thing which was photographed. I wonder about a possible “52rolls” project where everything stays on the negative, does not disappear. I am not sure I am brave enough to attempt such a thing. Nevertheless, I have ordered another fifty rolls of film to start with together with large quantities of chemicals.
A colleague has kindly donated an “new” enlarger to the observatory darkroom, which should make life in there a bit easier. As photographer, more than a mixer of chemicals, I know where to go now. So, before I get started, a final thank-you note to EMULSIVE, Urban and the 52 Rolls community for creating so much positive energy around film photography!
~ Henry Joy McCracken
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